Tessa Thompson

Thor: Ragnarok

I don’t profess to be a comic book purist or Marvel aficionado, instead I take each movie at face value. I compare within the genre, and examine each film within the context of superhero film history. I’m not familiar enough with the source material to assess authenticity from that perspective; I’ll leave that critique to others. However, as we march toward Marvel’s epic culmination Infinity War, I thought it was the perfect time to round out the Marvel family. Thor: Ragnarok, the third installment in the series, was a fun ride, and significantly better than its predecessor.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Ghostbusters) has been a rather likeable hero, but besides being obvious eye candy, he is also a rather formidable opponent for most foes. When we find him in Thor: Ragnarok, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, Transformers: The Last Knight) has been exiled by Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island). The destruction of his home planet Asgard is imminent, as Ragnarok looms. Ragnarok is a kooky word describing the destruction of the 9 realms, including Asgard. Enter Hela (Cate Blanchett, Carol), Odin’s first born and elder sister to Thor and Loki. Blanchett smolders as the deliciously evil Goddess of Death, a nemesis the likes of which Thor hasn’t seen. In a stunning display of power, she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer, gleefully letting it sift through her fingers like sand.

Loki and Thor don’t have much of a fraternal bond, with Thor justifiably wary of his sibling, given Loki’s history of betrayal. As they devise a plan to thwart Hela and save their home planet, they face assorted obstacles along the way, including a stay at the circus-like home of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Independence Day: Resurgence), where he bumps into an old friend. Thor also finds an unlikely ally in Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), so nicknamed in honor of the Asgardian defenders from whom she descends. With the help of new friends such as Valkyrie and old ones like Heimdall (Idris Elba, The Mountain Between Us), Thor treks back to Asgard to face Hela in a showdown to save his home planet.

The word “Ragnarok” sounds silly to me, and the previous Thor movie left much to be desired. As a result, I wasn’t particularly enthused about this latest installment – but I stand corrected. Writer/director Taika Waititi infused the movie with the perfect blend of action and humor. I hate corny, forced laughs and I’ve found it to be a common cinematic trick, in what I suspect is an attempt to appeal to kids. Ragnarok refrained from that, relying instead on Hemsworth’s natural charm and comedic timing. Thor is like the hot, cool guy who is surprisingly down to earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously. In other words, he’s perfect. Hemsworth displayed good chemistry with Tessa Thompson, and the actress was an effective foil and compliment to his character. Anthony Hopkins elevates anything he’s in (even if you think it’s beneath the Oscar winner), and Cate Blanchett is incomparable. She is becoming one of my favorite actresses, and her work here evinces an adaptable versatility. This was just a fun, well-executed movie.

Grade: A

 

Creed

I think it’s great to introduce an old classic to new audiences with a “reboot,” provided the original legacy isn’t cheapened in the process. When I heard about a movie called Creed that was going to revive the Rocky franchise by featuring the son of Apollo Creed, I had mixed opinions. These things can go either way: corny or rather cool. I was optimistic the film could be entertaining, primarily because director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (both of Fruitvale Station) were reuniting to infuse the franchise with new blood.

Jordan (Fantastic Four) continues his Hollywood hot streak as Adonis Johnson, son of Apollo Creed. Young Adonis was the product of infidelity, and his famous father was killed in the ring before his birth. Orphaned and understandably frustrated, he found himself fighting often in the juvenile detention center where we are introduced to him as a troubled adolescent. In a benevolent turn, Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, Good Deeds) rescues Adonis and takes him into her home. Fast forward a few years later, and despite the trappings of privilege and stable employment, Adonis retains his innate love of fighting. A self-taught boxer, he makes his bones in Mexico fighting amateur opponents on the weekends. Finding that no one will train him in any of the local California gyms, “Donnie” seizes his destiny by heading east after quitting his job.

Donnie touches down in the City of Brotherly Love, hoping to train under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 3) his late father’s former foe turned best friend. Rocky is a Philadelphia legend, but his career has long been over and he isn’t looking to train anyone. Adonis bides his time, joining a gym made famous by Rocky and Mickey, his legendary trainer. Eventually Rocky takes an interest in the younger Creed after observing his patience, dedication and earnestness. He latches on to Rocky almost immediately, endearing himself to the elder man by affectionately calling him “Unc.” Adonis is a raw, unpolished talent but shows great potential, making the most of his first legit professional contest by earning victory. He fights under his mother’s last name of Johnson, refusing to rely on the famous surname of a father he never knew. When he lines up a high profile title bout against a fading champion, Adonis sees his chance for greatness – as long as Balboa is in his corner.

Director Ryan Coogler continues to impress, masterfully weaving a feel-good story of triumph sure to resonate with audiences. Adonis Creed is a likable underdog, much like Rocky Balboa decades ago. Tough, yet sensitive – he never gives up on his dream and pursues it with dogged tenacity. Coogler crafted a fitting homage, and the little references and clever nods to 1976’s Rocky were not lost on me. I spent my childhood in the city of Philadelphia, and I’ve never seen it so glorious and inspiring. That’s a testament to Coogler’s cinematography, and the young director clearly did his research. From Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma) explaining the local slang, to depiction of the city itself – Coogler showed an impeccable knack for realism and deft storytelling. The audience in my theater audibly cheered throughout the film, yet Coogler didn’t sacrifice authenticity just to please viewers. When Creed needed to win, he did. When he needed to get his ass kicked, he did.

The fight choreography was superb, and the final bout of the film was simply electrifying. When that iconic theme music sounded, my heart pounded! If I may compare Creed with Southpaw, another boxing movie released earlier in the year, the former surpasses the latter in storytelling and realism. The final scene was framed like an HBO match, and the commentary enhanced it tremendously. Stallone was at his most endearing, like a familiar old friend, his visage well worn but kind. Jordan has undeniable star power. Forgive me if this reads like hyperbole, but the pairing of Coogler and the charismatic Jordan may one day rival the likes of DiCaprio/DeNiro and Scorsese in terms of sheer chemistry. Creed wasn’t terribly complex or original, but there was beauty in its simplicity and I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. Grade: A.